When Does Art Become Multimedia?

Two visitors sit on a bench in the middle of the Rothko Room at the Phillips

Oil on canvas or multimedia? Image: The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Photo: Benjamin Resine

Recent discussions of Bernhard Hildebrandt’s A Conjugation of Verb both here and elsewhere have encouraged me to reconsider the idea of “multimedia” art. The installation is a clear multimedia experience, combining visual art with sound and video to convey meaning. When visiting the exhibition last week, a friend commented that he found the work especially interesting within the context of a collection dominated by more straightforward examples of visual art. His remark prompted me to consider the extent to which many, if not all, pieces of art in the Phillips can actually be seen as multimedia works.

Take, for example, the Rothko Room. Unlike some of the Phillips’s more open galleries, this space is very small and intimate, eliciting silence and contemplation. The layout of the room is also of note; when Rothko visited the Phillips in 1961, he requested that the furniture in the space be limited to a single bench. In this sense, though the four Rothko paintings are remarkable and evocative on their own, the experience of viewing them at the Phillips is inseparable from the experience of inhabiting the gallery itself. The space—from its size and attributes to its ambience and furnishings (or lack thereof)—can be considered not only a vehicle for viewing the medium of art, but a medium itself.

We often don’t consider the ways in which the color of a wall or the lighting of a room affects our interpretation of an artwork. Yet all of these media, though traditionally seen as external to the artwork, form a context inextricably tied to our perceptions. With its carefully mediated spaces, Hildebrandt’s installation seems to make that concept explicit. What experiences have you had when place came together with art?

Marissa Medansky, Director’s Office Intern

Conversations with Artists: Wangechi Mutu

Wangechi Mutu taking audience questions

Wangechi Mutu taking audience questions on April 18, 2013, during our Conversations with Artists series. Photo: Sarah Osborne Bender

Two weeks ago, we concluded our season of Conversations with Artists by spending an evening with Wangechi Mutu. I was looking forward to her talk all year, having learned about her first in 2009 during our Paint Made Flesh exhibition. While I was familiar with her collage and mixed media work, I was unaware of her video pieces. Acting as filmmaker and performer, she takes on a variety of roles–laborer, protestor, diva, among them–and carries out intense physical expressions in each film. It was fascinating watching the projected videos of Mutu while, at the same time, she stood right beside the projection, casually in a headscarf and leather jacket.  She also discussed her first animated piece, The End of Eating Everything, which features singer Santigold. She told us she was satisfied at seeing her layered, still, two-dimensional works transformed into a moving image that conveyed a sense of space, but also commented on the lack of control that comes with bigger and more complex projects. I look forward to seeing if she continues her explorations in animation, and to seeing more of her video work.

Stay tuned for the 2013-2014 series of Conversations with Artists, returning in the fall.

Read the live tweets from the conversation with Mutu on Storify.